The NBA playoffs has never been known for its upsets and underdog magic and this year is no exception. The 1-2 seeds in both East & West have advanced to the conference finals. Here’s a look at the keys to both the Atlanta-Cleveland and Golden State-Houston matchups.
This is how well LeBron James is regarded by oddsmakers—in spite of the Cavs being the lower seed, missing Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving’s health being a question mark, Cleveland is still a hefty (-230) betting favorite to win the Eastern Conference finals. That’s respect.
And though it’s respect well-earned through his past performances and his current playoff averages of 27 points/10 rebounds/8 assists, LeBron is struggling shooting the ball. He’s 42 percent from the floor for the postseason and was hounded into a rough series against Chicago by Jimmy Butler. It won’t get easier with Atlanta’s DeMarre Carroll, the Hawks’ best player in the playoffs, chasing him around.
If the Hawks are going to beat the game’s best player it’s going to have come from dominance inside. Al Horford and Paul Millsap are each averaging nine rebounds a game in the playoffs and they owned a decent Washington frontcourt of Nene and Marcin Gortat in their second round series win.
It’s not going to be easy—Cleveland has a good rebounding center in Timofey Mozgof and an aggressive rebounding forward Tristan Thompson who’s an all-out hustler and keeps possessions alive with his work on the offensive glass. Horford and Millsap are the better players, but the challenge will be whether or not they can be a lot better in this series.
The health of Irving’s knee and ankle are going to the big X-factor throughout this series. Assuming Irving will be at least somewhat slowed, Jeff Teague has to take advantage both defensively and then creating action on the offensive end.
On the Atlanta side, the X-factor is whether Kyle Korver can find his outside shot. One of the league’s best three-point marksman, he’s hit a mediocre 35 percent in the playoffs.
How much value do you place in having the best player on the floor? That is entirely what this series is about. Atlanta has depth, balance and homecourt advantage. Cleveland has LeBron. In any other sport, you don’t think twice about taking the deeper team. But basketball in general, and the NBA in particular, is a different animal.
The top two finishers in the MVP race go head-to-head, with Golden State’s Steph Curry and Houston’s James Harden. But the more compelling matchup will come down low. If the Rockets are going to have any chance of upsetting the Warriors—who are a monstrous (-850) betting favorite—then it’s Dwight Howard who is going to have to live up to his Superman moniker.
At the start of the playoffs, a lot of observers ranging from Charles Barkley to myself (yes, we’re of of equal stature) went against 67-win Golden State to win the championship on the grounds that pure jump-shooting teams would run into problems in the playoffs. It hasn’t caught up to Golden State yet because Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut are holding their own down low, particularly Green, who has averaged 10 rebounds a game in the playoffs.
If Howard, along with Josh Smith and Trevor Ariza, can’t dominate the Golden State frontcourt, which includes skinny small forward Harrison Barnes, then this series is going to turn into a rout.
Curry and Klay Thompson are playing excellent basketball in the Warrior backcourt, each shooting over 40 percent from three-point range and Golden State is averaging 11.5 made threes per game. Harden might be good enough to keep up offensively with Curry, but he can’t keep up with both Curry and Thompson.
Moreover, Harden’s interest level in defense isn’t always very high, as he embraces his role as the George Gervin of our time (a great San Antonio Spurs scorer back in the 1970s/early 1980s who made sure to conserve energy on the defensive end). Not playing defense against Golden State’s guards will kill you.
So can Howard dominate and make this series a real battle? That’s what we’re waiting to find out.
There’s really no good reason to go against the betting favorites in this one and I do expect Golden State and Cleveland to reach the NBA Finals. On the other hand, neither one is really worth betting at the prices posted. I do think the Cavs-Hawks series could go the distance and could see Atlanta surviving. But if push comes to shove, we know LeBron would get several calls to go his way.
Golden State-Houston starts tonight (9 PM ET, ESPN) in Oakland, while Cleveland-Atlanta tips off tomorrow (8:30 PM ET, TNT) in Georgia.